Jeff Slee

Trade unions need Momentum

Jeff Slee
Trade unions need Momentum

WHILE THE WIND OF CHANGE is blowing through the Labour Party - bringing with it a huge growth in membership and activity, new ideas and renewed optimism - the trade unions remain in decline.

This decline has been going on for nearly 40 years. It is still continuing and last year it got worse. The latest report from the Office of National Statistics (ONS) shows that trade union membership fell by 275,000 to around 6.2 million, a 4.2% drop from 2015 to 2016 - the largest drop for over two decades. The three biggest unions all lost members last year - a drop of 1.1% in Unison, 7.9% in the full paying members of Unite, and 0.86% in the GMB. Trade union density (the proportion of employees who are union members) fell from 24.7% to 23.5%, an acceleration of a continuing decline. And the percentage of employees covered by collective bargaining fell from 27.9% in 2015 to 26.3% in 2016.

Trade union density (%) 1967 - 2016   The unions are especially weak in the private sector, which includes about three quarters of all workers. In the private sector union density is now 13.4%, and collective bargaining covers less than 15% of private sector employees. Figures for the public sector are better, with 52.7% union density and 59% of workers covered by collective bargaining.

Austerity and neo-liberalism may be on the retreat at the level of ideas, but in the world of work they continue to damage the lives of millions of workers and their families. As the trade unions decline, the share of national income (GDP) that has gone to wages has declined from over 65% in the mid-1970s, to levels that have remained below 56% since the 1980s.

The ONS report said that real wages are now shrinking by 0.5% per year. They have now fallen for three successive quarters, for the first time since 1976. This fall in real wages is expected to continue into next year. A recent survey of employers, quoted in the Times of 14th August, says that there is still a large supply of workers applying for jobs, despite official statistics showing record numbers of people in work, and this is keeping down pay.

Trade union militancy, measured by strike days (the number of workers on strike, multiplied by the number of days they are on strike), is also at an historic low and still declining. This is partly because there are fewer strikes, but also because 1-day and 2-day strikes are now the automatic choice of trade union leaderships.

Decade                    Average number of strike days per year (millions)

  • 1950s                         3.3
  • 1960s                         3.6
  • 1970s                        12.9
  • 1980s                         7.2
  • 1990s                        0.66
  • 2000s                       0.69
  • 2010-2016                 0.53

What this evidence shows is that, taken overall and with some exceptions, the trade union movement and especially its leadership has failed for more than a generation. It has failed to protect workers against changes in employment such as privatisation, outsourcing, and the growth in casual or precarious employment. A new report from the GMB shows that up to 10 million UK workers, a third of the workforce, are now trapped in insecure employment. The trade union movement has failed to organise in new sectors of employment. The areas of strongest growth in employment are retail and business services, hotels and catering. These have always been difficult areas for unions to organise in, and union density there is 10% or less.

Trade unions are failing to organise in new companies, and in smaller companies and workplaces. In 2004 only 18% of workplaces with fewer than 25 employees had union recognition, compared with 54% of workplaces with more than 25 employees. Of workplaces set up between 1998 and 2004, only 10% had union recognition by 2004, whereas of workplaces that closed in that period 26% had union recognition.

The evidence also shows that 17 years of New Labour government did nothing to reverse the employers’ offensive against workers and trade unions. Their changes to the anti-trade union laws did little to mitigate the severe restrictions those laws put on trade unions. Changes to the rights to recognition gave only a small, short-term benefit to unions. And the privatisations and outsourcing continued.

If there is a sign of hope, and a basis to fight back, it is in anecdotal evidence that the growth of radicalism among the young may be making itself felt in workplaces. In my own union, the RMT, we are now seeing some women and men in their 20s coming forward to be union representatives, prepared to argue against management, in some cases leading disputes, and rapidly picking up socialist ideas and latching on to the enthusiasm generated by the new Labour leadership and Momentum.

RMT National Executive Committee (personal capacity) and Orpington CLP